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3D Printing and Art

Where Does 3D Printing Come From?

The subject of 3D printing has been very hot in the news in the first half of 2013.  Many people are becoming aware of it for the first time, and although there are many exciting new developments happening every day, the truth is that 3D printing (or, as it was originally called, 3D prototyping or rapid prototyping) has been around since at least the 1980’s (see this Wikipedia article for more on the history of the technology). Its original use was in industry, as a means of producing a prototype of a machine part, automobile component, or something similar. Even if it cost thousands of dollars to produce a test part in this way, this was still far cheaper than setting up an assembly line only to discover a fatal flaw in the design after tens of thousands of parts had been produced.

Fast forward to today, and dozens of different technologies have sprung up, and more are on the way. There are now machines that print in plastic, metal, ceramic, plaster, … even chocolate and human tissue-like substances! With the possible exception of the chocolate, the vast majority of people are using these technology for “practical” applications.

How Does 3D Printing Intersect With Art?

As an artist I, of course, am interested in how to use this technology to produce art. I am by no means the first to do this, but I think the field is still generally in its infancy. For me, especially as a mathematically-oriented artist, I think there are three main advantages that 3D printing can have over more traditional methods:

1. Complexity is no longer a barrier

Certain shapes that would be dauntingly complicated (and, frankly, tedious!) to carve or otherwise produce by hand can easily be printed using 3D printing. This means that some projects I would previously have rejected in the early stages as being too complex to produce are now feasible. A great example is my Screened Icosahedron.

2. “Impossible” shapes are now possible

Some 3D printing technologies allow one to print objects that are interlinked or nestled inside one another from their inception, without the need to cut apart / glue back together again. Sets of interrelated shapes that were literally impossible to produce (without seams, that is) before can now be created. My 19 cubes series is an initial exploration of this theme.

3. Mathematical equations can translate directly into printable files

Although I have yet to take advantage of this, there are many folks producing models by writing code based on mathematical formulas, generating geometry using that code, and then outputting that geometry into a printable 3D file format. In other words, you can create a (somewhat) direct path from a mathematical concept to a printable file.

I’m excited to see where it all leads. I guarantee you that you’ll see more from me in the near future using these technologies!


About Phil Webster

Phil Webster is a life-long geometry buff and sculptor. These days he is using emerging technologies like 3D printing to create designs that have been lurking in his head for years.

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